Interview with Prof. Rocco Buttiglione

On November 24, 2022, Pedro Gabriel interviewed Prof. Rocco Buttiglione about Amoris Laetitia and St. John Paul II. In this interview, we explored how to reconcile Amoris Laetitia with John Paul II’s pontificate, and how Amoris Laetitia is based on certain anthropological principles that were already present in Karol Wojtyla’s philosophy.


Pedro Gabriel

Good afternoon, and welcome to our Amoris Laetitia talks. I am Pedro Gabriel and today we have Prof. Rocco Buttiglione with us.

Rocco Buttiglione has been Ordinary Professor of Philosophy of Politics at the University of Teramo, of Philosophy of Politics and of Political Science at the St. Pius University of Rome and of Philosophy with a particular consideration for the Philosophy of Politics and of Society at the International Academy of Philosophy in the Principality of Liechtenstein, where he was also a prorector. He has also taught at several other universities, and has received an honorary doctorate at the Catholic University in Lublin and at the Francisco Marroquín University in Ciudad de Guatemala

He has also been active in the field of politics as minister for European affairs and as minister of culture for the Italian government, and also as member of the European Parliament, of the Italian Chamber of Deputies (where he was also Vice President) and of the Italian Senate.

He has also been an advisor to the Papal Commission on Justice and Peace.

He has written more than a dozen books and several hundred papers on different topics, namely on John Paul II’s thought, which will be the main focus of this interview.

Buttiglione is currently Professor at the Instituto de Filosofia Edith Stein in Granada (Spain) and is also currently a member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences and of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas.

He is married to Maria Pia and has 4 daughters and 12 grandchildren.

Rocco, welcome to our program. It’s an honor to have you here.

Rocco Buttiglione

It is an honor to be here with you. Thank you.

Pedro Gabriel

Thank you very much for accepting this interview. So, first of all, as I said, our interview will focus mostly on Pope St. John Paul II’s thought and life. So, could you briefly describe to me your opinion on John Paul II, its main highlights, and the general impact that this pontificate had for the Church and the world?

Rocco Buttiglione

Well, it is not easy, at least not in a short time.  I would say first of all, he was a saint. Everybody who was near to him could testify to this. He had a beaming humanity, and it was impossible to be near to him and not to be taken by this humanity. I have been a friend. I have worked with him. I have eaten with him. I have sung with him. He was a good singer.

But when he comes back in my dreams, what comes back is always the first time I saw him. I was a boy in a crowd. He passed by. He watched me in my eyes. He shook my hand, and I had the distinct impression: There is a man who would give his life for you if need be. And when there is such a man, and this man is not your father, not your mother, not even your sister or brother, then at least the doubt that this love must have a supernatural root, must come to you. And this doubt accompanies you throughout all your life. I tell this because there is an impression that many people who met him have had, and all those who later became closer friends and had more occasions to be with him, and those who saw him only once, they all had the same impression: He was a man of God. 

Pedro Gabriel

Alright, so obviously his pontificate also had a big, positive impact on the Church, and even on the world. What would you say would be the main points in which John Paul II made this positive impact on the Church and the world?

Rocco Buttiglione

Well look, we were used to think that the world had been divided in two by the Yalta agreements. The Yalta agreements, the agreements that divided Europe in a Soviet part and in a democratic part. We were used to thinking that these agreements could be called in question only through a war. Through a nuclear war. This means they could not be questioned. And these agreements were questioned through a movement that was a cultural and religious movement. And the leader of this movement was John Paul.

We fought not with weapons, but with the weapons of charity, of culture, of dialogue. We made an appeal to the conscience of our opponents. We did not want to call them enemies, even in difficult times. Even when in Poland the Communists killed our people. I think of Father Jerzy Popieluszko, I think that his cause of beatification is now ongoing. 

And John Paul II always said: We must respect every man. We must make an appeal to conscience. Weapons do not shoot by themselves. They need men. And if men are not convinced that they are facing an aggression, if men are called to make use of their moral sense, then these men will become our brothers. 

And so, we had a miracle. The Communist regime fell down without blood. Perhaps it would have fallen also without John Paul II. But it would have fallen in a civil war from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic Sea. A civil war that might have easily triggered the Third World War and nuclear war. 

And I think this was a miracle. The real first great miracle of the pontiff John Paul II. And this is the end of an historical epoch.

Some people oppose John Paul II to Pope Francis, and they do not understand that John Paul II stands at the end of a historic epoch, and then a new historical epoch begins, and we cannot continue in a historical epoch that is over. And that explains many of the differences or these pontificates. 

Within the same fundamental inspiration, popes are like orchestra directors. They can put different accents, but the music is the same. Take, I don’t know, Manfred Honeck, a friend of mine, and Barenboim. They are two great orchestral directors and they put different accents. But when they play the Fifth Symphony of Beethoven, the symphony does not belong neither to Honeck, nor to Barenboim. It belongs to Beethoven, and so the music of the life of the Church belongs to God. 

Pedro Gabriel

Yes, and that’s precisely a very good insight, because that’s one of the points of this interview: many of the critics of Pope Francis tried to pit Francis against John Paul II, as if they were in opposition. And also much of this opposition comes from Amoris Laetitia. They say that Amoris Laetitia contradicts John Paul II’s pontificate, and this happened because John Paul II promulgated an apostolic exhortation named Familiaris Consortio, where he did not allow communion for divorced and remarried people unless they would agree to not live more uxorio, that is without sexual intercourse, as brother and sister. So, what changed with Amoris Laetitia relatively to the previous sacramental discipline, and how can we reconcile Amoris Laetitia with Familiaris Consortio

Rocco Buttiglione

Well look, I think there is a difference, of course. There is a difference in the sacramental discipline. It is not a difference in the fundamental moral theology. 

What is the point? Take Familiaris Consortio. Before Familiaris Consortio, the divorcees were practically excommunicated. They were not invited to attend the Mass. They were not welcome if they set foot in the parish church and Familiaris Consortio makes a revolution. Familiaris Consortio, says no: we want you to come. You are welcome. Come to the Mass and give a religious education to your children. We cannot allow you to receive communion, but we want you to be members of the Church. It was a revolution. A change. They were no more excommunicated.

There was a last battle: the possibility of receiving the sacraments. John Paul II did not do that because he lived in a society in which he could expect people to be scandalized by the communion given to divorcees. 

Now, unfortunately we live in a society in which this would not be any more a scandal, because this situation of divorced people has become common. There are so many of them and we run the risk that if they do not give religious education to their children, the children will remain out of the Church. 

This does not mean that to have sexual intercourse out of marriage, in a civil marriage that is not recognized by the Church, is no more a sin. It means that before it was a special sin. You could not go to the confessor and confess your sin. You could not allow the confessor to evaluate the attenuating circumstances that might, to a certain extent, justify what you were doing. You were excluded also from confession. 

Now you can go to the confession. You can talk, you can explain, and you can initiate with your confessor a path leading you back to the full participation to the life of grace and along this path, at a certain point, you may receive an encouragement to receive the communion. 

Why? Under which circumstances? The Pope does not want to make an examination of the different cases, because the cases are an infinite number. If you want later, I can tell you some cases in which I think this could happen. But it says only: talk to your confessor, and the confessor must take the responsibility of giving you adequate counsel and of leading you back. 

Of course, the point of arrival is that if you are in a marriage that is not a real marriage, you must interrupt the sexual intercourse with your partner. But when, how? On this we can discuss. 

Pedro Gabriel

Yes, so you have actually written a book, a book in defense of Amoris Laetitia, which I have right here. It’s titled “Risposte Amichevoli Ai Critici Di Amoris Laetitia,” which is Italian for “A Friendly Response to the Critics of Amoris Laetitia.” This was, for a long time, the only one of two books that I know of defending this document. What drove you to write this book?

Rocco Buttiglione

Well, I was in Vienna giving classes in a local university and my friend Guzmán Carriquiry called me by phone and told me: “Rocco, they’re attacking the Pope. You have to do something to defend him.” And I thought for a while. What would John Paul II tell me if he were here? And I had no doubt he would tell me: defend the Pope. Not because he’s Bergoglio, not because he’s Wojtyla, but because the pope is the pope, first. And second, because he’s right.

And then I, I started writing the articles that were collected for this book. They tried, some people tried to make of John Paul II an enemy of the Vatican Council, a reactionary, a conservative. No, he was 100% a man of the Council.

Of course, he was against some wrong interpretation of the Council, that understood the Council as a break in the history of the Church. No. In the history of the Church there is always continuity and innovation. Neither innovation without continuity, nor continuity without innovation.

On the same fundamental ground, new buildings can be added, but remaining faithful to the inspiration which is Christ, the only founder of the Church and the only stone on which the Church rests. And Peter is the Vicar of Christ in the history of the world. 

So that’s the reason why I wrote. By the way, John Paul II was also a philosopher, and a very innovative figure. He wrote a book on the “acting person”. It was a kind of philosophy of the Council and the philosophy of the Council consists in the fact that the same truth is presented beginning with the everyday experience of the men of today. There is only one truth. John Paul II was absolutely against any kind of relativism, but there are many paths, leading to this truth.

The path that leads to this truth in the 13th century is different from the path leading to this truth in the 21st century. The path leading to this truth beginning in Poland, within national Polish culture, is different from the path leading to the same truth, having as a starting point, Argentina or Italy or whatever, or Portugal, I don’t know.

Pedro Gabriel

Yes. So, yeah precisely. It’s very interesting that you brought up the concept of “person in action” or acting person. I will pick that up a little, later in this interview. But for now, you also brought up an important point which is: Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, was a philosopher and he has written many articles, where he developed a very interesting anthropology. 

So, you have written about this anthropology that Karol Wojtyla developed, even before he became Pope John Paul II. My understanding is that there are some aspects of his anthropology that are not very well known, and this may be a source of the misunderstandings, since Francis seems to inspire himself in those forgotten anthropological principles that people, Catholics in general, might not be well acquainted with. Therefore, people might have some trouble understanding the continuity that exists between Francis and John Paul II.

Let us talk about this anthropology. Let’s start talking about the tension between objective sin and the sinner’s subjectivity. This was a part of Karol Wojtyla’s thought even before he ascended to the papacy. So, in your book you write, and I quote:

“The objective side of the action decides on the goodness or gravity of the action, whereas the subjective side of the action decides on the level of responsibility of the agent.”

End quote.

We are all well acquainted with John Paul II’s teachings on objective evil acts, or intrinsically evil acts, that he developed in Veritatis Splendor. But what can you tell us about John Paul II’s teachings on subjective responsibility and mitigating factors, which seem to be at the center of Amoris Laetitia?

Rocco Buttiglione

First of all, there is not a particular doctrine of John Paul II.  He owns this doctrine, but you can find this doctrine in St. Thomas Aquinas, and you find this doctrine also in the Catechism, and not only in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, also in the old Catechism of St. Pius X. It is expressed in a different language: in order to have a sin, you need an objective side—gravity of matter—and you need a subjective side. Subjective side is freedom of judgment and knowledge of fact. Knowledge of fact means you must know that what you do is wrong. If you don’t know that, if you think honestly, in your conscience that it is right, then there is no sin. Second, you must be free and there are situations in which you are not free. 

Unfortunately, in our time, with so many damaged lives, people who grow without having the model of a living family, of a real family, because their parents divorced, because perhaps they never had a father… many people do not have these models. And they grow with an emotional structure that is damaged and makes it very difficult for them to be really free. 

Now, in order to evaluate the subjective responsibility, you must consider these two elements. And then, it may happen that something that is objectively, absolutely wrong, can be only a venial sin, or perhaps nothing at all according to the situations. 

John Paul II added to this traditional teaching one point, and this point is what we might call the idea of “social sin” or “social structures of sin.” What is a social sin? Sin is always personal. Only persons can commit sin. But there are social structures that incline people to commit sin. And when one lives within these social structures, it’s possible that he’s not completely responsible for the sins he commits. 

Why? Because he receives the teaching that that action is good from persons who are entitled to teach him, from resorting to experience and from all the culture in which he lives in, and you must evaluate this when you try to build a path that leads from a specific culture towards the truth on man. 

And this is the fundamental part in Amoris Laetitia. Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia expands on this principle. It considers attenuating circumstances that may transform a mortal sin into a venial sin. That is, make it possible that you commit something that is objectively, absolutely wrong, but nevertheless you are not completely responsible for it. 

A great friend of John Paul II and of mine, Father Tadeusz Stychen, who was the successor of Wojtyla at the Chair of Ethics of the University of Lublin or the Catholic University of Lublin, and perhaps the closest friend of John Paul II, —he was also a friend of mine—used to say “innocens sed nocens.” You are innocent, you are not responsible, but what you do nevertheless is wrong. 

I have to explain to you that it is wrong, but I must take time and patience, also because in the world of today, the confessor, the priest is not an absolute authority. Once he could say: “Here is a document of the Church” and “you must do this.” Very seldom this authority today is recognized. In his relation to the penitent, he has to show why it is true, what the Church teaches. And in order to lead the penitent to understand, that he is doing something wrong and to find the moral energy to break with the behavior, he needs time, and he must have the capacity of finding a path. And it is not always easy, and it cannot be determined abstractly, a priori. Only within the situation, you can find the path that brings you beyond the limits of the situation, that breaks the limits of the mentality of the culture and leads you towards the complete truth. 

Pedro Gabriel

Yes, that’s a very interesting insight about the structures of sin. First, before I move on to that point, I would just like to point out that the teaching of mitigating circumstances is also codified in the Catechism that John Paul II promulgated, namely, paragraphs 1860 and 1734-5, and 2352 and these…

Rocco Buttiglione

But Pedro, for those who do not accept the Council, I would add it is contained in the Catechism of Pius X.

Pedro Gabriel

Yes, precisely, correct. I’m just pointing out…

Rocco Buttiglione

It has always been a doctrine of the Church. It is no novelty.

Pedro Gabriel

Yes, correct, I’m just pointing out that John Paul II also taught these principles, even when people try to pit him against Francis. These Catechism quotes are specifically quoted by Amoris Laetitia 302, where the sacramental discipline has been promulgated. And there’s also the distinction between mortal and venial sins that Pope John Paul II brings up in Veritatis Splendor 70 and Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 17. So, Francis is not saying anything that John Paul II did not say before. 

Now regarding the structures of sin, it’s very interesting, because this is another anthropological principle that John Paul II brought to his pontificate and that not many people talk about, even though many popes after John Paul II have, indeed, talked about structures of sin,

So, John Paul II talks about structures of sin in Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 16 and in Solicitude Rei Sociallis 39.

Structures of sin predispose, as you said, people born in those structures of sin to sin, hindering their ability to recognize the truth and to choose it accordingly.

How would you say that the divorced and remarried couples, that Amoris Laetitia is trying to bring to the Church, how would you say how these divorced and remarried couples are affected by our modern structures of sin, and how does this mitigate their culpability?

Rocco Buttiglione

Karol Wojtyla, in his book on “person-in-act”—the acting person—he explains that we have the capacity to know truth, but we have also the necessity to interiorize truth.

Now both these aspects in our society are problematic. Think of a person who has was born in a broken family. It is difficult for him to interiorize the value of the unity of marriage. It is maybe difficult in a hipper-sexualized society like ours, it is very difficult to interiorize also the value of chastity. And, if you sleep around, it is difficult later that you interiorize the value of conjugal fidelity. And many people get married, and they have no real idea of what marriage is. They don’t know, sometimes, but in a much larger number of cases they have not interiorized the value, even if they theoretically know it. And then they divorce, they enter into a second marriage and then at a certain point in their life they want to go back to the faith, to a living faith. And they go back to a living faith, having two marriages, having procreated children with a second husband or wife, and they may be willing to say to the husband or wife: we cannot have intercourse, it is wrong. Nevertheless, we can love each other, and they have feelings of gratitude. This husband or wife may be the person who has saved them from the depression after the failure of their first marriage and is the father of their children and they are in love to him. And what if he says no? “If you refuse intercourse with me, I consider this as a betrayal of our love.” And he leaves, and he creates another family. What should a mother or a father do under these circumstances? If he continues to have intercourse, what he does is wrong. Shall we say that it is so wrong as to be a mortal sin? 

I don’t know. In each particular situation, you must make a judgment. The divorcee becomes a sinner like all others. He has the right of asking for a judgment and of offering the mitigating circumstances that they may be present in this situation. 

By the way, I wish to make two points. The first one is this idea of the structures of sin is of John Paul II, but it is not an invention of John Paul II. You can find it in St. Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologica Prima-Secundae, question, I think that’s 95, articles 5 and 6. He explains that certain people do not recognize all the aspects of the natural moral law. For instance, he gives the example of the Germans. He says: the Germans do not consider theft to be a sin. And the concept of structure of sin grows out of a reflection on St. Thomas Aquinas.  

Pedro Gabriel

Correct, and also the other concept that you mentioned, the concept of “person-in-action,” or the “acting person,” that’s also an important part of Karol Wojtyla’s thought. Another defender of Pope Francis has been Professor Rodrigo Guerra Lopez, a member of the theological team of CELAM, who also wrote about that. I have a quote from him that says that Wojtyla’s personalism sees human action “as a norm for a yet unfinished person, as a moral norm for the person in transit, a person-in-action, demanding great patience and tenderness, great care and respect for the most intimate dynamics of the person, a conscience that is not educated ‘at once,’ but is always on journey.” End quote.

This seems to relate to a masterful insight I’ve read in your book, that perfectly incorporates Francis’s principle of “time is greater than space.” You write, and I quote: “If no one can escape one’s cross, it is also true that no story begins with the cross. It is a path. In this journey, ‘time is greater than space.’ In what direction is the sinner moving? Towards the house of the Father, or away from it? The direction of the movement (marked by time) counts more than the absolute distance, which is space.” End quote

So, this principle of the “acting person,” the “person-in-act” is also present in Karol Wojtyla’s philosophy. Could you elaborate a bit more on what John Paul II meant by “person-in-action”?

Rocco Buttiglione

Well, look. Now it comes to my mind another thing. We have been talking about the John Paul II, about Pope Francis. I want to outline the fact that this principle is absolutely traditional.

I don’t know whether the name of Alfonso Lopez Trujillo means something to you. He was a cardinal who was the President of the Papal Commission for the Family. He was a very conservative cardinal, he was a traditionalist. One of the problems that we have today is that we have too many traditionalists who do not know the tradition. Alfonso Lopez was a traditionalist who knew perfectly well the tradition, and he has written a moral document for confessors in which all the principles of Amoris Laetitia are already contained. He says: if there is somebody who has a starting point that is very far from the doctrine of the Church, somebody who is committing sin or acts that are grave matter of sin, but nevertheless he’s not aware of this, the confessor shall not tell him that he’s committing sin immediately. He shall tell him that he’s committing sin only step by step, when he’s acquired elements enough to understand that what he’s doing is wrong. So, not right away, but in a dialogue. When we have arrived at the point at which he can understand that what he’s doing is wrong, and not only, when he has acquired the moral inner strength to change his behavior. 

So, there is not a novelty of John Paul II. Of course, it is a novelty. John Paul II rediscovered it and expressed it with great philosophical capacity, but it is a traditional doctrine of the Church. You find it in a very conservative cardinal, like Alfonso Lopez. You find it in St. Alphonsus Liguori. You find it in all the history of moral theology. And some very conservative theologians, also today, very conservative theologians who know the tradition, the traditionalists who know the tradition, recognize. 

Unfortunately, there are many traditionalists who do not know the tradition of the Church. They think that the tradition of the Church is what the Church used to do when they were children, and this is of course a part of the tradition of the Church, but only a small section. 

The tradition is much broader and within this tradition you find all the principles that Pope Francis lays off in Amoris Laetitia

Pedro Gabriel

Yes, and that’s a good point, because that’s precisely it. Both Pope Francis and Pope John Paul II are traditional, but they bring from tradition principles—and develop them—that were forgotten by current day traditionalists and then they confuse these elements that they bring from tradition and that have been forgotten—or were not very highlighted before—they confuse this with novelties. 

No, they are traditional. They bring from the treasure of the tradition of the Church something that is traditional, but then they develop it. 

And of course, every pope has his predilection, his favorite ideas. So, John Paul II would focus on the structures of sin, or the “person-in-act,” which is very attuned to his philosophy, and Francis likes talking more about mercy and about mitigating circumstances, Benedict XVI liked to talk about truth and continuity. 

So, all of these are traditional principles, but each pope will focus on the things that are dearer to his heart. 

So yes, of course all of these principles that we are discussing of Pope John Paul II’s anthropology are indeed traditional. Of course, not novelties, but something that he develops. 

Rocco Buttiglione

Pedro, also we must consider that each pope has to deal with different problems, different opponents. The main opponent of the Church in the age of John Paul II was Communism. The main opponent of the Church in the new age in which we have Pope Francis is unbridled Capitalism, and you can find that John Paul II began to change immediately after 1989. After the fall of Communism, he starts a repositioning of the Church in front of the problems of the new historical epoch. And Pope Francis continues this repositioning of the church in front of new opponents and of new problems. 

Of course, there is also the other aspect that you have put forth. That is, each man has his own culture, his own idiosyncrasies, and there is no greater difference than that between a Polish man and an Argentinian. Two completely different popular cultures, two completely different nations and temperaments, in the unity of the same church. 

Pedro Gabriel

Correct. So now, in in your book, you say that mitigating circumstances are what distinguishes the realist ethics of John Paul II from the objectivist ethics of some of Francis’s adversaries. So, what would you say are the differences between these two ethics? The realist ethics of John Paul II and the objectivist ethics of Francis’s opponents? And where do these critics misinterpret the thought of Karol Wojtyla? 

Rocco Buttiglione

For John Paul II, it was clear that there is an objective truth on moral acts. We have the right to pass judgment on acts and say this is wrong, and it is correct, it is true. There is good and there is bad. Don’t be afraid to pass judgement. 

Now there is a general mentality that wants you to be not judgmental, but man is a being that needs to pass judgments. And some things are right. Some things are wrong. 

Never pass a judgment on persons. Don’t be afraid to pass judgments on state of affairs. 

Never pass judgment on persons. Why? Because only God knows the conscience of the person. 

In order to be good, you must obey your conscience. The proximate judge of your acts is your own conscience. And only God knows the real state of your conscience. 

To a certain extent, you know that too. Only to a certain extent, because very often we are wrong in our conscience, and to an even lesser extent, your confessor, or your best friend may be conscious of this. 

So, if you are not a confessor and you are passing judgments on somebody else, somebody who is not yourself… Don’t do that. 

This was very clear to St. John Paul II. Always judge facts. Never judge persons.

And I think that this is exactly the point of conjunction with Pope Francis. By the way, he’s a Jesuit, and Jesuits have a great tradition exactly on the issue of the direction of conscience. To direct conscience means to enter into a dialogue with the person and this dialogue is not a communication in which you give orders and the penitent obeys. You have to talk to him, to discover together with him, the path that God wants to lead him towards truth.

And this corresponds exactly… even on the issue of mercy, don’t forget, John Paul II’s had great devotion to the idea of mercy. He has written the encyclical Dives in Misericordia, and the devotion to the Merciful Heart of Jesus, the devotion to Faustina Kowalska, was very near to his heart.

When he was a young man and he went to the factory where he worked in the time of the Nazi partition of Poland, we passed by the convent of Faustina Kowalska, sister Faustina Kowalska. And he wished to stop there, to pray to the Merciful Heart of Jesus. 

Pedro Gabriel

Correct, and I would like then to pick up on conscience. It’s one word that Francis critics fear a lot, “conscience.” And of course, this is because many liberal dissenters abuse this word, but you also connect Francis’s teachings on conscience with John Paul II’s thought on that matter. The difference between the liberals and Francis is that Francis acknowledges that there is an objective moral reality, and conscience cannot change what is evil into good. But this does not mean that there is no such thing as subjectivity. And you try to prove it from John Paul II himself.

You write that conscience has the task of “subjectivizing the truth that the intellect has known. It is not enough to know what is good to do it. We must recognize it as good, identify it as the good.”

Now I must make it clear that subjectiving here is not about saying that truth is subjective, but that the truth must be internalized by the subject to build his interior world, from whence he can make moral judgments.

Can you elaborate a bit more on John Paul II’s teachings on conscience and how they relate to Pope Francis’s pontificate?

Rocco Buttiglione

Yes. John Paul II says there is an objective truth—or rather Karol Wojtyla, because this belongs to his philosophy—There is an objective truth. I can know this objective truth. On the other hand, this objective truth must become the form of my personality. In order to become the form of my personality, this objective truth needs to be interiorized. It cannot be opposed to the interiority of my person. It must become the form of the interiority of my person. And it is only possible through a dialogue, a dialogue, in which it enters to constitute my personality. 

What is the difference with some theologians who pretended to give an interpretation of the Council and gave a wrong interpretation of the Council? They say conscience constitutes truth. Which is true, but conscience constitutes truth—the good of the action—on the basis of the objective truth of the action.

Conscience is a kind of mirror. Conscience is to mirror the objective truth. And sometimes the mirror does not work well, and it may happen that what is mirrored in my conscience does not correspond to the objective truth. And then I am not a sinner because I have to obey my conscience, even to my wrong conscience. 

Of course, if I am acting on the basis of a wrong conscience, my friends, the Church, have to try to explain to me why I am wrong. But nevertheless the proximate judge of the action is the conscience of the person, and you cannot substitute the conscience of the person. And it is exactly what Pope Francis means when he says that the confessor has the task of helping the conscience to recognize truth. But it is not the task of forcing the person to do something he does not recognize as true, as his personal truth. 

The objective truth is the truth of my life. That’s the problem of moral life. To transform the objective truth into the truth of my life. And of course, it takes time. There is history. 

Many opponents of Pope Francis, who really are opponents also of John Paul II, they do not want to recognize the meaning of history. And here we come to the principle that you have quoted before. It is not important only the position that one has towards truth. It is also important the dynamic movement. Is he moving away from truth or towards truth?

And you remember in the Gospel, Jesus sees the people who offer their money for the temple. Some Pharisees give a lot of money, and the poor widow gives only two cents. And Jesus says these two cents have more worth than all the hundreds of gold coins given by the Pharisees. Why? Because she is poor. She gives out of her misery. 

So, the small steps towards truth made by a man who was born in a broken family, who made a wrong marriage, who was abused in his youth… the small steps he makes towards truth perhaps are more valuable in the eyes of God than a much more perfect accomplishment of moral good made by somebody who had a good father, a good mother, good grandparents, who was raised in a good school, was raised a good parish church, and most important got married to a good woman. To him everything is much easier.

But God sees also that the poor man who is a drug addict, that has so many disgraces in his life… well, he is doing much less objectively. But subjectively, it has a much greater value because he’s moving towards truth, starting with a very biased starting point. 

Pedro Gabriel

Yes, I know that Pope Francis also made that point in Amoris Laetitia about small steps from a person who has a background, who has lots of baggage, these small steps have more value than someone who is not sacrificing much because it’s easier for this person to follow the path of the Church.

Now I would just like to make a final question, because in Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II rejects certain erroneous moral theology currents of the time, like fundamental option theory and situation ethics. But some of Francis’s critics have tried to say that Amoris Laetitia falls into these errors. You categorically denied that that’s the case. So, what exactly is the difference between fundamental option theory and situation ethics, and what Amoris Laetitia is proposing? 

Rocco Buttiglione

Well, situation ethics says that the moral good of the action is dependent on the situation. In a certain situation, one thing can be good. In another situation it can be bad. Which is true for many actions, but not for all. There are some actions that are always bad and cannot become good under any circumstances. The killing of human life…

Pedro Gabriel

Intrinsically evil acts…

Rocco Buttiglione

Yeah, intrinsically evil. Intrinsece malum. There are some acts that are intrinsically evil. They cannot become good under any circumstances. For example, the killing of an innocent human being, and perhaps also of a non-innocent human being. Take the death penalty. The killing of a human being is always wrong. 

What John Paul II says is, there is the intrinsece malum. Circumstances do not decide on the moral good or evil of the action, but circumstances enter into the evaluation of the subjective consciousness and the force of the conscience of the person who commits the act, right? 

Subjective… the circumstances can exercise such a pressure on the person that he’s not any more responsible for what he does. 

Let us give one example. The killing of a human being is always wrong, no doubt. Let us imagine that I am driving my car, and somebody—a drug addict, who is drunk—he throws himself under the wheels of my car and I kill him. Am I responsible? 

Pedro Gabriel

No, not at all. 

Rocco Buttiglione

Let us imagine that I am a drug addict. I drive my car and I run over one person who was passing by. Am I responsible? 

Pedro Gabriel

Well, only inasmuch as you took the drugs, and drank, and then drove. 

Rocco Buttiglione

I have a certain amount of responsibility. Let us imagine that I am driving my car. I see a man who’s passing by. He’s my enemy and I consciously run him down because I hate him and I kill him. Am I responsible?

Pedro Gabriel


Rocco Buttiglione

In the first case, I am not responsible. In the second case, I am let us say, 50% responsible, and in the third case I am 100% responsible. There is a graduation of responsibility also. And that is the point that both St. John Paul II and Pope Francis made.

In each case the objectivity, the actor is equally wrong. Subjectively, the responsibility may be 100%, 50%, or close to 0%. And who can judge? Only one who is in the situation. You must judge your own responsibility. 

Who can help you to judge, to understand? A person who is so close to you that he can see the situation from within but not so directly connected, so that he maintains the capacity of objectifying and think objectively on what you have done. And that is the role of the confessor. 

Pedro Gabriel

So OK, this is all the time then that we have for today. I would like to thank Rocco once again for accepting my invitation to talk about Amoris Laetitia.

To our viewers, please subscribe to be notified about new Amoris Laetitia talks in the future. Also, I remind the viewers that a transcript of this video will be made available on my website: the City and the World.

I will leave a link in the description below, and also links to Prof. Buttiglione’s book Risposte amichevoli in Amazon. If you know Italian or Spanish, I advise you to buy it.

I would also like to remind the viewers that my book “The Orthodoxy of Amoris Laetitia” from Wipf and Stock is also available in Amazon. I quote Prof. Buttiglione extensively in my book, and even have a section dedicated to Wojtyllian thought on objective evil and subjective responsibility, which was greatly inspired by Prof. Buttiglione’s writings. The link to buy will also be posted down below.

Once again, Rocco, thank you so much for this time.

Rocco Buttiglione

Thank you Pedro for having me.

Pedro Gabriel

To our viewers, I wish you all a good day and see you soon.

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Dr. Pedro Gabriel is a Portuguese Internet journalist who received a Honors diploma from the London School of Journalism in 2021. He is currently residing in Portugal with his wife, Claire.

He is one of the co-founders of Where Peter Is, where he remains as one of its main contributors. He also won First Prize in the 2023 Catholic Media Awards in the category “Pope Francis” for his apologetics book “The Orthodoxy of Amoris Laetitia (Wipf and Stock, 2022).

Accredited press corps member for the press coverage of World Youth Day Lisbon 2023.

Currently, he is taking classes in moral theology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. He is also a medical oncologist, a parish reader, and a published writer of Catholic novels.